Passes in the darkness

[b]Belarusian blind footballers win CIS Cup and dream of other achievements [/b]Vitebsk central sports complex’s artificial football pitch is lit by blazing lights in the darkness. The players wear blindfolds yet move confidently, following guidance from coaches and volunteers. Hands stretched forward, they smash their rivals and score goals. The leather ball is unusual in being equipped with bells inside. It rings as the footballers move it from one foot to another.
Belarusian blind footballers win CIS Cup and dream of other achievements

Vitebsk central sports complex’s artificial football pitch is lit by blazing lights in the darkness. The players wear blindfolds yet move confidently, following guidance from coaches and volunteers. Hands stretched forward, they smash their rivals and score goals. The leather ball is unusual in being equipped with bells inside. It rings as the footballers move it from one foot to another.
At seven o’clock in the evening, the lights are switched off but nobody pays attention and training continues. “Light matters little to us,” explains the head coach of the Belarusian mini-football team for the blind, Oleg Kirillov. “However, we do need quiet, since our guys rely on their hearing. All official matches are organised outdoors, so we train at the stadium despite cold weather.” Headquartered in Vitebsk, the team was established just one year ago but has already participated in the European Championship and won its CIS First Cup.
It was the Spaniards who first began developing this sport for the blind, twenty years ago. At last year’s Paralympics in Beijing, the Spaniards lost to the Argentineans in a match for third place. Silver went to the hosts, while the Brazilians became the champions. Interestingly, the lack of Europeans among the top three pushed experienced Spanish specialists to begin popularising the sport among their continental neighbours.
Mr. Kirillov (who previously worked with footballers with partial sight) was sent to an international seminar in Moscow by Belarus’ Paralympics Committee and the Belarusian Association for the Visually Handicapped. In February 2009, Grodno hosted the first Belarusian championship for the blind. Vitebsk’s regional team won and it was decided to form a Belarusian team as a result.
“I grew up in a disabled family, so I know the problems faced first hand,” explains Mr. Kirillov. “Moreover, since childhood, I’ve been friends with the Head of the Centre for Olympic Training of the Visually Impaired, Igor Lapshin (step and jump silver medallist at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul). When he proposed that I train the team, I agreed.”
Six guys from Vitebsk and the Vitebsk region joined track and field athlete Nikolay Savchenko (from Molodechno) and 17 year old schoolboy Yevgeny Markevich (from Grodno). Three men with full sight act as goalkeepers and are the only sighted sportsmen on the pitch during the match, able to move no more than two metres from the goal.
At the first CIS Cup — held in Vitebsk in early October — I saw the varied paths that lead blind sportsmen to this sport. Muscovite Sergey Manzhos was named the best player on the Russian team. He lost his sight at the age of 8, after a serious trauma, and became interested in sport while studying at a special school. He began playing football two years ago and also works as a programmer. Having mastered a specially developed ‘voice’ programme, he places information on his team’s Internet site.
In the final match of the CIS Cup, the Russians played the Belarusians, closing with a no score draw. However, after-match penalties ended in Belarus’ favour — 1:0. “I’m very glad for the Belarusians, who are not only our rivals but also our good friends. They have greatly advanced recently and, probably, will soon play against European teams as equals,” admits the Russian team’s head coach, Nikolay Beregovoy.
“Of course, we wanted to take revenge for our defeat at the continental championship. However, it wasn’t the most important factor,” adds Oleg Kirillov. “In gaining this valuable experience, we’ll be able to face the strongest teams from the UK, France, Brazil, Argentina and Spain in the future.”
The CIS Cup organisers plan to hold the event regularly in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, with participants of the first tournament approving the idea. They are now preparing for the World Championship — scheduled for 2010 in the UK.

By Sergey Golesnik
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